New Orleans area residents suffering from increased mental health problems

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Mental health experts report that depression, including suicidal depression, and posttraumatic stress have become increasingly common among people who were affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. An educated guess is that more than 260,000 people are newly affected by anxiety, depression and substance abuse disorders, and there are not enough professionals or facilities to accommodate them. To make matters worse, many behavioral health professionals are also suffering from some of the disorders brought on by the devastation of Katrina and its aftermath.

A well-known television producer killed himself when he lost everything in Katrina. Several doctors have committed suicide, and only last week, an animal rescuer killed herself. In the days following the hurricane, the suicide rate in Jefferson Parish was double what it had been in the same period of 2004. As the population of New Orleans goes down, the volume of mental health problems increases.

Posttraumatic stress disorder is certainly on the rise, and now that the 2006 hurricane season has begun, posttraumatic triggers will increase. Discussions of tropical storms in the Gulf of Mexico, television footage of Katrina, Rita, and other big hurricanes, and repeated warnings about hurricane preparation cannot be avoided. One estimate is that a third of the people who lived through Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath are suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder.

To make matters worse, New Orleans area citizens continue to fight with their insurance agencies about the terms of their coverage, many have not yet decided whether to return to the city or have their houses razed, many are living in FEMA trailers or worse, and there is significant stress in homes housing more than one family or several extended family members. Add to that the unemployment or a lower level of employment since the hurricanes, and you have a formula for ever-increasing mental health issues.

People who were seriously mentally ill before the hurricane, or whose illnesses were made worse by the storm, cannot access hospital beds because of the low staffing in psychiatric hospitals.

In my own practice north of Lake Pontchartrain, I am seeing people who had problems prior to Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, but who were coping reasonably well. After losing their houses, jobs, money, or family members, however, they feel they can no longer cope with their daily routines, much less than the larger problems they face. Even people who lost nothing cannot erase the vidual images of people clinging to roofs, suffering in the Superdome, or having their pets taken from them and tossed into the street. A psychiatrist with whom I frequently talk said he is hearing the worst stories he has heard in his career.

Because of low staffing and caregiver stress, there is no solution in sight for what is now a mental health crisis.

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In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily bluster—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

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